For nearly a decade, this West Side pastor has shepherded students to and through college

“I want the students to go higher,” says Bernard Lilly Sr., 55, a pastor at Greater St. John’s Bible Church in Austin.

SHARE For nearly a decade, this West Side pastor has shepherded students to and through college
Bernard Lilly, surrounded by college pennants he has collected over the years while taking students in his mentoring program on college visits.

Bernard Lilly, surrounded by college pennants he has collected over the years while taking students in his mentoring program on college visits.

Lisa Philip / WBEZ

In a windowless office next to a hair salon in an old building in Austin, Bernard Lilly Sr. hands a Morehouse College pennant to 16-year-old Makhi Allen.

The two of them picked it out on a trip to Atlanta to visit the historically Black men’s college.

Now, Makhi is pinning it on the wall behind Lilly’s desk among a growing collection of banners from colleges across the country.

Makhi joined Lilly’s College Mentoring Experience program because his dad knew Lilly could help Makhi with his college goals in ways his school counselor could not. Years ago, Lilly used to walk Makhi’s father to school.

“In my eyes, to even be successful in my life, I gotta go to college,” Makhi said. “It’s the least thing I can do for my parents’ sacrifices for me … waking up early and driving me to school every day, putting food on my plate.”

The Morehouse pennant in Makhi’s hand and the others already pinned up represent a campus visit organized by the not-for-profit College Mentoring Experience, which Lilly started in 2014 to help students from the West Side get to and through college.

This month, 15 students are headed to campuses across the country with support from the program, which has seen 50 students through college and beyond.

Together, the golds and maroons, blacks and reds and royal purples and yellows of the banners embody Lilly’s belief that a college education not only uplifts students but can uplift their families and communities too. Lilly holds on to this belief despite rising tuition costs, student debt and skepticism regarding the value of higher education.

“When we give students the opportunity to attend a college, college gives them an opportunity to figure out what they want to do in life,” he said.

It’s an opportunity Lilly didn’t have. After graduating from high school in Alabama, he attended trade school and moved to Chicago to work as a bricklayer. He later got an associate’s degree.

“That’s me,” said Lilly, 55, who has long been a pastor at Greater St. John’s Bible Church in Austin. “But I want the students to go higher …. If they want their master’s, go get it. If they want their doctoral degree, go get it.”

Lilly’s nonprofit pairs students with mentors who guide them from sixth grade through college and onto, hopefully, a successful career.

“I was helping students in our local church right here on the West Side of Chicago,” Lilly said. “And I just felt that, if I could find 50, 100, 200, 500 adults that felt the way I felt and were passionate about making a difference in these youths’ lives … I felt like we can make a difference not just in our community, not just in our city … we can make an impact on the world.”

In Austin, where Lilly lives and works, just one of every three young people complete a college degree, according to the To&Through Project. Compare that to Lincoln Park, where three of four students finish college.

“The city is divided,” Lilly said. “Students on the West Side … don’t have the same resources as students in other areas of the same city.”

Schools that serve more students from low-income families, like the high schools many of Lilly’s students attend, are less likely to have a staff member dedicated to college counseling, according to the National Association for College Admissions Counseling. Lilly said his students need academic and emotional guidance because of trauma endured by their communities from gun violence, incarceration and the coronavirus pandemic.

“Our students are just as smart as any other students,” he said. “They can do just as much. They just need the door open …. We want to kick the door open.”

College Mentoring Experience matches each student with a professional in a field of interest who checks in weekly and, as one student said, provides “a shoulder to lean on in hard times.”

“My mentor has helped a lot in my life,” said Billy Lane Jr., who joined the organization five years ago. “He knows how to talk to me whenever I’m in a mood.”

The teenager soon will start his junior year at Westinghouse College Prep in East Garfield Park. He said his mentor gently opened his mind to the possibility of attending college, which he used to think wasn’t the right fit for him.

“I really want to go to college now, to find out who I am as a human being,” he said, “to find a deeper part of myself and become the man I’m trying to become.”

College trips and more

Lilly and his staff take students on college trips to help them figure out what kind of institution they want to attend, say, a small liberal arts college, a flagship state school or a historically Black college. Without these trips, Lilly said, many of the students wouldn’t be able to go on campus visits.

“Sometimes, it’s our students’ first time on a plane,” he said.

Parents occasionally go on the trips, too. For some, Lilly said, it’s their first time on a college campus.

“Sometimes, I hear parents say, ‘Listen, I couldn’t go to college. I had to raise my child. Life happened,’ ” Lilly said. “They be so excited and thrilled that they get the opportunity to see their child attend college, and it changes the family.”

It can level up a family’s income bracket, he said, and kickstart a college-going tradition.

“The younger siblings get to … attend the college or university graduation, get to see this from their older siblings,” Lilly said. “And now they just got exposed. Now, guess what? Now, they desire to do what their older brother, their older sister just done.”

Shariyah Cox, who joined the College Mentoring Experience program about a year ago, isheaded to Florida A&M this month.

Shariyah Cox, who joined the College Mentoring Experience program about a year ago, isheaded to Florida A&M this month.

Bernard Lilly Sr.

’The next step’

The college trips made the difference for 17-year-old Shariyah Cox. She aspires to be a real estate agent and used to think she didn’t need or want a college degree. She joined College Mentoring Experience about a year ago.

“When I got in the program, they shifted my attitude towards college,” said Cox, who graduated earlier this year from Providence St. Mel School in East Garfield Park. “I started going on college tours. And I started to see life on campus and how it could benefit me … It changed my mind.”

In a couple of weeks Cox heads to Florida A&M University, a historically Black college in Tallahassee.

“I stepped foot on campus, and I was, like, ‘OK, I can see myself here,’ ” Shariyah said. “They’re gonna set me up for the future. So I was, like, ‘Yeah, this is the next step.’ ”

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